May 23, 2020

My Biggest Failure…

Criticism can be devastating,
but praise can be even more dangerous
In May of 2008 I created The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau which was widely published and exhibited. In addition to the public success, I consider the work a personal success because I love and am proud of the images.
And with the success came congratulations, praise and then the advice….
The overwhelming consensus was that I needed to strike while the iron was hot and take advantage of the publicity the project was receiving. I was encouraged to create additional ” The Ghosts of… ” projects and ride the wave of success.
It was suggested:
  • The Ghosts of 911
  • The Ghosts of Little Big Horn
  • The Ghosts of Manzanar
  • The Ghosts of The Killing Fields
My initial reaction? No way! I was inspired to create the Auschwitz series and unless I was inspired to do another location, I’m not interested.
But the praise and encouragement just kept coming in: fantastic!…brilliant!…do another Ghost series… ride the wave…take advantage…you have a winning formula…this could be your ticket to the big time!
Slowly I was seduced and finally I agreed. I chose as my next Ghost project: The Ghosts of Great Britain . It was to be shot at the castles of England.
So off I went with my family in tow. My young daughter was to be my ghost and she brought her ghost costume: a white sheet with eye holes cut out. We went from castle to castle with her wearing the sheet as she spun or walked slowly for 30 second exposures.
It was a fun trip and we had some laughs as other tourists looked on, wondering what we were doing.
Old Wardour Castle
When I got home and processed the images…I absolutely hated the results and scrapped the project. I kept only one image, “Old Wardour Castle” above.
Why did I hate the project? Because it was not inspired, it was not borne from Vision and I had no Passion for the project. Instead it was a contrived marketing strategy.
In Cole-Speak: it wasn’t an honest project.
It was an expensive failure, but it provided two invaluable lessons:
First, trust your instincts. Other’s advice may be sincere and right for them, but it may not be right for you. In this instance my definition of success was quite different than how the advice-givers defined success.
Second, I was reminded of the powerful influence praise has. I was too easily seduced and set aside my standards.
Not cool.
This experience reinforced my belief that criticism can be devastating, but praise can be even more dangerous.
Georgia O’Keeffe addressed this:
“I decided to accept as true my own thinking.
I had already settled it for myself, so flattery and
criticism go down the same drain, and I am quite free.” 
My goal is to be be free from the opinions of others, for good or for ill. But the truth is that praise is a seductive siren that beckons, influences and sometimes changes my actions and opinions.
Even today as I show these images, I worry that if I were to start receiving positive comments about them I would be persuaded to change my opinion of them.
If others love them…maybe they’re not so bad?
Maybe I was wrong, maybe these are good images?
Maybe that “Ghosts of…” idea wasn’t so bad?
And while I’d like to think I wouldn’t let that happen, this is exactly what did happen a few years ago with another one of my images: I traded my values for popularity.
But that’s a story for a future newsletter.

7 thoughts on “My Biggest Failure…

  1. I’ve been following you for some time Cole and admire your “stay true to yourself” philosophy. Taking to heart every criticism, positive or negative, can wear you down or derail you. Increasingly I’m adopting the attitude; hear it, put it to one side, and then move on.

  2. I am a painter, not a photographer in the true sense, as I take photos purely for reference, but your article truly resonated with me. I too have been tempted by overt praise to produce uninspired work with which I am not enamoured. I have learned to accept the “ You should …” comments gracefully but to then put them aside.
    I look forward to reading more from you. Thank you.

  3. In our camera club’s last salon, my two worst (IMHO) images won honors and the three I’d print for my home were only rated above average. I decided then to stop entering salons because I only need my approval.

  4. Been there, done that! And I’ll probably do it again too if I’m not careful. But, in general, it is a trait that is common in humans. We all want people to look at us from time to time. There is nothing wrong with that as long as we recognize that feeling for what it is.

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